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It never fails: Every few months Sesame Street does something progressive — introducing an autistic character, acknowledging COVID-19 as a serious issue, teaching empathy — and a certain subset of social media is up in arms about how their beloved childhood favorite has “gone woke,” or something. It’s in those moments that I like to post the 1972 clip of Jesse Jackson, then boasting an afro and a shiny medallion around his neck, leading a diverse group of children in a call-and-response recitation of “I Am — Somebody.”
The Jesse Jackson clip features prominently in Marilyn Agrelo’s Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street, a very solid if somewhat tip-of-the-iceberg documentary premiering at Sundance ahead of a spring theatrical launch and HBO premiere.
It would be fair to feel like this is a topic that has received adequate retrospective treatment over the years, including in Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, a Sundance sensation a decade ago, and the similarly puppet-centric doc Muppet Guys Talking, directed by Frank Oz. In retrospect, those films fit in nicely as complementary pieces to Agrelo’s doc, which takes Michael Davis’ bestseller of the same name as its inspiration. Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street is designed as an overview, specifically an overview of the first two decades of Sesame Street, one that invites rather than precludes more focused examinations in the future.
Buoyed to a tremendous degree by the participation of series creators Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, spry legends in their 90s, Street Gang traces the earliest origins of the Children’s Television Workshop and the then-revolutionary aspirations to use television — and specifically the visual language of commercial television — as a teaching tool for kids. But let’s be more precise than that, because the initial goal was to use this nascent show as a teaching tool for inner-city kids — and namely, minority kids. There was never a second in the history of the beloved show in which progressive values and diverse, ideological message-building weren’t the absolute core building blocks of its DNA.
In somewhat dry, but still fascinating step-by-step fashion, the documentary explains how myriad crucial elements came together, from unsung heroes like Sharon Lerner, the show’s initial research and curriculum coordinator, to amply sung heroes like Jim Henson, represented here by Lisa and Brian Henson. Many key behind-the-scenes figures are alive and eager to tell their stories — folks like longtime head writer Norman Stiles or musical parody savant Christopher Cerf — but others have passed on, so Agrelo makes sure to feature two of legendary director Jon Stone’s daughters (one of whom even appeared on the show as a wee child) and memories from Nick Raposo, son of series composer Joe Raposo. Henson, Stone and Raposo are also featured in a wealth of behind-the-scenes footage and period interviews, consistently enlightening and in some instances utterly hilarious.
The in-front-of-the-camera team is fully represented as well. The era of Sesame Street depicted in Street Gang is my generation’s sweet spot, and it’s hard to imagine any viewer of a certain age not literally clapping for interviews with actors like Sonia “Maria” Manzano, Emilio “Luis” Delgado and Bob “Bob” McGrath. Caroll Spinney was interviewed before his death in 2019 and tracks key pieces of Big Bird’s development, and there are great stories from Fran Brill, who answered Henson’s initial call for female puppeteers when it became clear that having an all-male group manipulating the various synthetic characters wouldn’t fly.
The first half of the doc is methodical and lacking in any sort of formal whimsy, which, given the subject matter, certainly would have been organic. Agrelo lets the interview subjects cover the information and the clips — which are triggering in the best way possible if you were raised on the show — deliver the energy. I wasn’t always sure as to the rhyme or reason for which certain details get explored and others skipped over. The vintage sketch with puppet executives debating possible titles for the show or the clip with Kermit’s explanation for the title feel new, but it’s slightly odd that the theme song and opening credits go completely unaddressed.
I’m sure the filmmakers know as well as anybody that this material could just as easily have filled a longform miniseries in this media landscape. You have to anticipate and accept that for every one of your questions that gets answered here — for every breakdown of Big Bird’s journey from ungainly dumb sidekick to lovable, childlike centerpiece — there are at least twice as many questions that go unexplored and characters whose arcs go untraced.
The approach of the first half is bloodless enough that I wondered if Street Gang would hit my tear ducts at all. I need not have worried. The home stretch is one gut-punch after another, especially with the one-two combination of the deaths of Mr. Hooper and Jim Henson. So don’t fret if you think Street Gang is being too analytical, because the sobbing will come. And it isn’t just sadness. Agrelo smartly saved a lot of the funniest outtakes and most happily emotional sequences, like the montage of small kids interacting with the various puppets, for the last 30 minutes as well.
If 107 minutes is maybe insufficient for something as important and layered as Sesame Street, that likely won’t keep viewers from being satisfied. They’ll just have to make a few more documentaries about this seminal show.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production Companys: HBO Documentary Films, Screen Media
Director: Marilyn Agrelo
Producers: Trevor Crafts, Ellen Scherer Crafts, Lisa Diamond
Executive producers: Seth Needle, Mike Messina, David Nagelberg, Brian O’Shea, Nat McCormick, Matthew Helderman, Luke Taylor, Mark Myers, Heather Kenyon, Nancy Abraham, Lisa Heller
Cinematographer: Luke Geissbühler
Editor: Ben Gold
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